Are education grads ready to teach early literacy?

Temple University, the District’s biggest source of teachers, works to give students the tools they need.

This article was originally published in The Notebook. In August 2020, The Notebook became Chalkbeat Philadelphia.

When Da’Veeda Clark walked around the classroom at Fox Chase Elementary School, she saw the faces of antsy 3rd graders who were eager for an afternoon lesson. This was one of Clark’s last days as a student teacher. The rest of her semester would be marked by finals and commencement. She graduated May 6 from Temple University and has been moving forward in the process of becoming a teacher in the Philadelphia School District, which will allow her to teach from pre-kindergarten to grade 4. “I feel prepared,” said Clark, who was one of more than 600 students to graduate this spring from Temple, which is the District’s biggest feeder school for teachers. But what does it mean to be prepared to teach in early education? The answer has a lot to do with literacy. “We know that a vast majority of teachers enter the field underprepared to teach,” said Nancy Scharff, an early literacy expert with the city’s READ! By 4th coalition. “We need teachers to be trained in evidence-based reading instruction before they enter the classroom.” Yet a growing bulk of research shows that few teacher-preparation programs expose students to the science behind how kids learn to read. Some schools of education are making changes to address these findings, but on a scale and at a pace that still leaves graduates at a loss. At Temple, the budding early education track didn’t even exist before 2011. And the need for high-quality early educators couldn’t be more urgent. Last year, just 33 percent of the District’s third graders scored proficient or advanced on the English Language Arts PSSA, a number that forecasts bleak outcomes for children and the city. A child’s ability to read on grade level by the time he or she leaves 3rd grade is a major benchmark for future success. Three-quarters of students who are poor readers in third grade will remain poor readers in high school, according to one study. The fledgling readers in Clark’s classroom finally got what they waited for: a math lesson on surveys and collecting information. Despite feeling weary after taking their first math PSSA ever that morning, the students thrust their skinny arms into the air each time Clark asked a question. And when it was time for group work, the students, clad in their navy and crimson uniforms, crowded around the desks in clusters of four, longing to please their teacher and collaborate with their peers. “Literacy is a part of every subject,” said Clark. “Math, science, history. So I try my best to make sure it comes first.” Clark said she feels especially prepared to teach reading because of the strong instructors she has had at Temple. But as a student teacher, she said, "I first had to get over the shock that so many kids and adults in this city can’t read.” A graduate of Cayuga Elementary, Roberto Clemente Middle School and Philadelphia High School for Girls, Clark was the first person in her family to go to college. Her desire to be a teacher was affirmed when she met a 45-year-old man in her neighborhood of West Oak Lane who said he couldn’t read and had a 200-word vocabulary. “I knew I wanted to help people, and not being able to read is a serious problem,” said Clark. After attending the Community College of Philadelphia for two years as a nursing major, she transferred to Temple to attend the College of Education and pursue dual certification in early childhood and special education. At Temple, Clark’s courses have included “Child Development: Birth Through 4th grade,” “Language and Literacy Development in Early Childhood,” and “Differentiated Reading Instruction.” These courses are all designed to provide a mix of theory and practice. Last year, through Temple’s practicum program, she spent time in a variety of schools, from Francis Scott Key Elementary School in South Philadelphia to MaST Community Charter School in the Northeast. The program places students in classrooms as early as sophomore year for three to five hours a week as teaching assistants. “Temple has tried its best to give us the tools we need,” said Clark. But although she says she feels prepared to help students learn to read, some of her peers aren’t so sure. When asked whether he is learning how to teach students how to read and be literate, Joe Tierney, a junior in Temple’s College of Education, replied, “No, absolutely not.” He had just walked out of his 8:30 a.m. “Methods of Literacy” class, where students were reviewing for the course’s final at the end of the week. The teacher trainees in the classroom, mostly White women, were grouped together for the trivia-like review exercise. Each team prepared questions according to broad topics such as writing, comprehension, and vocabulary. When it was one team’s turn to ask the questions, like a game show host, the other teams vigorously buzzed in on flimsy Staples Easy Buttons to share their answers. The time was filled with the wannabe teachers shouting out what they had covered over the semester: sequencing, word learning strategies, plot, and root words were a few of the answers. Within the next week, the class of rising seniors would also have to submit a final project, a comprehensive lesson plan. For Tierney, courses such as this one aren’t doing enough. “What we’re learning is very superficial, and in higher education, at a level like this, there should be more, especially if we’re going to be in the field teaching one day,” Tierney said, referring to a culture of instructors who mostly read from PowerPoint presentations during class. He added, “We need to be looking into studies about what we’re going to be teaching. I want to look at the research, delve into the numbers, and learn about different [instructional] approaches.” Tierney, like Clark, is set on teaching in the School District of Philadelphia once he graduates, and his practicum experience this semester at Cayuga Elementary Promise Academy in North Philadelphia has strengthened his resolve. There, he has spent time working with a 2nd grader, who, when tested for literacy skills, didn’t even come up to the lowest level of the Developmental Reading Assessment. This student missed about 90 days of kindergarten and about 50 days of first grade, but somehow got passed along into second grade, Tierney noted. And although he says practicum has been useful, he wants a forum where he can discuss his classroom experiences. The practicum coaches work with at least 12 students per semester, with two hourlong observations apiece, so they don’t really have time to sit and debrief, Tierney said. “I don’t know that there will be a course that will specifically teach me how to move a kid up who is significantly behind in reading, but hopefully everything will come together next year,” he said. Some of Tierney’s peers in class that morning, exposed to the challenges of urban education through practicums, were in awe of those who plan to work in Philadelphia. They have decided it is not for them. Said one student who plans to make a beeline for the suburbs upon graduating: “I give major props to anyone who can teach here, I can’t mentally handle that environment; 35 kids [in one class] is a lot. The kids are sweet, though.” Other students commented that teaching literacy is hard because the preferred methods are “constantly changing.” “There’s a big focus on decoding now, and that’s not how we learned it when we were growing up,” another student said. Young program The College of Education’s Early Education Program was implemented five years ago when the Pennsylvania Department of Education changed how it certifies teachers for working with students in the formative early years. Temple administrators say they are continually reviewing and revising it. “We are in a constant state of examining our program,” said Kristina Najera, an assistant dean and professor. Changes to the curriculum are made based on data about programming and students’ field experiences and based on feedback from instructors and the School District of Philadelphia. The school is considering three main adjustments for the fall. First, it is making a push to infuse cognitive science into methods courses. Although the curriculum already requires students to take “cognitive development,” the information is often forgotten by senior year. Najera said the effort is to help the students make more connections so they can draw on the underlying science while they are teaching the children. Mental health will also be a focus, with Temple moving students to think more about how to support children’s mental health while pushing them academically. The school also wants to build on its commitment to social justice, by giving students more opportunities to interact with and understand the communities where they will teach. And to improve its curriculum in the long run, Temple is also looking to advance its communication with the District, particularly around student teaching, which some Temple students have described as a “hit-or-miss” arranged marriage, depending on where and with whom they are matched. Community partners, such as the READ! By 4th coalition, have also moved Temple to consider becoming accredited under the Center for Effective Reading’s Knowledge and Practice Standards for Teachers of Reading, which identify the course content and teacher competencies necessary for quality literacy instruction. And how do administrators know whether their program is producing high-quality teachers? At this point, their evidence is mostly anecdotal. “When we’re out visiting schools, principals will tell us, ‘I love Temple grads,’” said Juliet Curci, the college’s director of school and community partnerships. “A lot of them speak to [alumni’s] resilience to engage in meaningful ways with students and with colleagues, not shying away from challenges.” The school also relies on a portfolio of documents that students submit throughout their time at Temple, which includes pieces such as a child study or a unit of lesson plans. Instructors are able to judge student work with a rubric based on Temple’s own standards. “We know students meet our internal expectations, but we don’t know [exactly] how their performance translates out,” Curci said. But an 18-month, $476,497 grant recently awarded to Temple by the William Penn Foundation to research the connection between pre-service teacher preparation and student outcomes may help fill in some gaps. And the District, which plans to hire 800 new teachers for the fall, now has feedback for schools of education since it started collecting information about teacher applicants just last year. As part of a revamped application process, teacher candidates are required to complete a data-analysis task. They are given student performance data and asked to make specific instructional recommendations. From last year’s process, the District reported that, across the board, applicants could draw broad conclusions – for instance, “this student struggles with phonics”– but struggled to make specific, targeted instructional recommendations for what to do next. Curci acknowledged that there is a national movement to improve teacher preparation programs. Although that is necessary, she said, she wants Temple to be deliberate about changes. “We are not resting on our laurels,” she said. “We want things to be carefully thought out. We want to feel comfortable [about the changes] based on our knowledge and expertise in the profession and not just on political pressures here and there.” But with the knowledge they’ve gained, adequate or not, some pre-service teachers say they expect to hit the ground running. Clark said she feels ready to make a difference. “I do anticipate having challenges in a classroom with an array of needs. I have to be realistic about what’s going on,” she said. “I need to know their weaknesses and strengths, and build up on their strengths and highlight what they can do.” Her background, she said, is a help. “To actually have the title of teacher means I can change lives. In terms of urban education, I’ve lived here. I have experienced the realities of it," she said.